What would a ‘digital skills in the community’ program look like?


Persuading communities and institutions to think much more creatively about all things digital

It’s got to the stage where I feel I need to significantly broaden my skills sets – in particular some of the broader basics. It’s one of those things where I feel I sort of vaguely know what something is about, but have never really put it into practice. This is why the process of making my beginners’ userguides for social media (see here) were an incredible learning experience for me. I brought together a number of very talented but under-employed young people, gave them a framework and an outcome to work with, and let them unleash their talents at the challenge I gave them.

What are the digital skills that people want and need?

This in part follows on blogposts here and here – the latter being my demand for a coding school. We’re sort of getting one in Cambridge next summer, but it’s aimed at 16-19 year olds and costs far too much for me. (See here). Also, with coding there feels like there is so much information that I struggle to get my head around that I can’t make an informed choice. Think of it as someone illiterate saying: “I want to learn how to write”. Which language do you want to write in? With what tool do you want to write, and on which medium/material do you want to write on? Now imagine that the illiterate person knows nothing about the variety of written languages across the globe, the tools you can write with or the materials you can write on – from paper to computer screen to a brick wall.

So the challenge here is informed choice: People are not able to make sense of the information that is in front of them. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve recommended different programming/coding languages. Yet this matters. The same principles apply with the basic IT courses that teach the Microsoft Office suite of programmes: You end up locking people into a commercial and very expensive suite of software. In one sense I was lucky during the mid-1990s when I did a GCSE in information systems – we were taught concepts as the school was still using the old Acorn computers. Thus word processing, spreadsheets and databases were the terms we used rather than the trademarked brand names – which came later.

Method of delivery

I’m thinking here about the people (like me) who cannot sit down and do ‘distance learning’ or learning at home in isolation. It’s simply not my preferred method of learning for something practical. I personally need people to converse with, and to bounce ideas off. I also struggle with the single ‘one day’ courses – a couple which I tried in London not long after leaving the civil service. They just didn’t work for me, even though they were reasonably affordable.

That said, education in the community needs to account for different learning styles. How do you ensure you are covering as many of them as possible? Furthermore, where do you try to get funding in these constrained times. Commercially available training such as this one are prohibitively expensive for most people.

Learning creatively and imaginatively

In one sense the ECDL framework (see here) has started to expand beyond the Office suite of products. (I completed the standard version over a decade ago). I can’t say I learnt anything particularly new back then. If anything, my big complaint about those sorts of courses is how utterly unimaginative they were when I did them. Ditto when I went on a course to learn about basic CSS/HTML. The printed book we had to learn from was written by an American which meant that culturally it did not sit well with a UK audience. The case study we were given to work with was to design a webpage for a dog. For a dog. Weird Al Yankovic & Donny Osmond spoofed the entire concept (see here) in a satirical take of this original number. (The spoof is the first one, the original the second one).

“I gotta biz-ness doin’ websites – when my friends need code who do they call?

I do H-T-M-L for them all – even got a web page for my dog”

My point here being: “What are the really bad cliches that we want to avoid?” What are the learning-killers? Bland, poor communicators are one. Inappropriate materials are another. No real context is a third. There are many more.

A sense of structure

One of the things I’m trying to do for myself for 2014 is come up with a list of ‘digital stuff’ that I feel I need to know about ***and*** be able to demonstrate (if only to myself) that I can use them. Ditto with making use of the software and hardware that I spent a fair amount of money on after leaving the civil service. It was only making the digital videos that I got a sense of both being tested to their limits.

The important thing about structure is the sequencing. In what order do you recommend people learn the different components? Does the package of components connect to something that is far greater than the sum of their parts? What are the basic things that people need to know before they go onto the more advanced things? For example how much about spreadsheets do people need to know before going into something around big data? How much around basic journalism to people need to know before doing something around data journalism – a growing area?

Delivery ideas

I’m bouncing off a blogpost by the brilliant Jennifer ‘Jay Jay’ Jones on community media cafes and other things. (See here). In a nutshell, JJ is an inspiration – I had the pleasure of meeting her over a year ago when she came to visit Cambridge. The work that she’s doing in Scotland to me looks like many of the things I would like to do in Cambridge – but as part of a team and a wider group of people.

In Cambridge we’ve got the very good Cambridge Online which hosts the free Net-Squared social media surgeries. I’m a volunteer at the latter and demand for social media surgeries has shot up since I started volunteering, moving from once every three months to once every month. The problem is that Cambridge Online is forever struggling for sustainable sources of funding – even though there is clearly demand for these sorts of basic services that they provide. There are also specialist groups, such as the Cambridge Bloggers’ group (see here). But how do you get the sense of having a comprehensive suite of skills that covers the basics and beyond? This is part of the thinking behind the ‘Open Badges’ scheme by Mozilla – the Firefox people. (See here).

The poisoned narrative around adult education

This is what senior politicians from all parties simply do not understand: Lifelong learning is not just about basic skills for employment, nor is it simply about flower-arranging workshops for middle class mummies. Both Labour and the Coalition have a lot to answer for in terms of the cuts that have happened to adult and community education in recent years. (See this blogpost for more on this). Too much of our political class still digitally illiterate – I’ve had my run-ins at a local level with several councillors kicking sand in my face as a direct result. As the following article states:

By investing in adult education, we can create stronger communities

But where is that investment going to come from, and will it be sustained?

So…what should be in a ‘digital learning in the community’ program?

Let’s assume we’re starting from year zero here – and I’m ****really interested**** in your thoughts on this.


We could take the ECDL framework and have things like

  • Word processing
  • Spreadsheets
  • Databases
  • Slides/presentations
  • Email and the internet

But there are also other important basic concepts such as:

  • File management
  • Computer security
  • Staying safe online
  • Data protection

What else to people use at a basic level?

  • Basic social media – Twitter, Facebook, Blogging, RSS
  • Basic image manipulation/digital photography

But then there are things that people are now using more of as a result of wider smartphone uptake

  • Basic short mobile digital video clips (without editing)

Then you’re also onto things like:

  • Creating basic webpages
  • Basic coding
  • Search engine optimisation – SEO
  • Basic data analysis
  • Mobile and apps
  • Basic gaming

That’s a hell of a lot of basics for a basic program!

That’s my point. Now, for those of you over the age of…30, go back to 1990. Where were we with all things computing? Yes, we had basic console games for some of us who were growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, but how much of it was incorporated into our learning? How far have curriculums and learning programs evolved to account for the rapid growth of new skills that are now being demanded by employers?

Now, how do you put all of the above into a context that is meaningful and won’t bore the tears of the people learning? How do you also ensure that the content is continually refreshed to account for rapid changes in technology and how people use it?

This is something I would love to spend some time exploring with you and others – bringing together a group of interested parties to play with these ideas to see what we can come up with.

Any takers?


7 thoughts on “What would a ‘digital skills in the community’ program look like?

  1. I’d be interested in being involved, for sure, but I’m quite limited with time these days.

    Having gone back to uni three months ago, I’ve remembered what I need when I learn, what I need for things to make sense to me: something semantic, something I have come up with on my own, that I’m interested in doing. Practical work. Meaningful steps to what I want to do.

    So in my opinion, the question you need to ask is: what do potential students want to get out of it? I would imagine that someone wanting to learn how to use email and internet won’t be interested in data journalism, but they might be interested in social media because email and socmed are part of online communication. And equally, someone wanting to learn about data journalism is very likely to have already worked with spreadsheets, email and internet and a lot of other things you’ve mentioned.

    When you know what they want to get out of it (“I want to contact my daughter who lives in Australia”/”I want to make maps using ONS data”/”I want to create a website for my business”) then that’s when you will understand how you present a course/programme in a meaningful way.

  2. Does it need to be formally structured training? I am a volunteer for the Connecting Communities project in Oxford. We help older people do whatever they want to with computers and the Internet. They sit down, choose a task, then ask for advice. They set the agenda, not us. It is learning without teaching.

  3. Your ideas sound interesting and the programme you’ve outlined sounds like a useful list of digital and ICT skills for anyone including people involved in charities, community groups and community/social/voluntary action. My context: I work in Newcastle for the CVS there and spend my time with people from charities, community groups, people wanting to do good to help them set up, grow and do the stuff they want to do to help local people. I’d guess the issues they face are similar to those faced by people and organisations in Cambridge (although each area is different).

    I think digital skills will help many of these people and organisation do things easier and better but in my experience many people won’t look at a list of digital skills and think that is for me. I can’t think of anyone who would say I need to learn more about spreadsheets or databases or even learn more ‘digital skills’. I can think of plenty of people who are worried about doing their group’s books and using spreadsheets would be a brilliant fix. I can think of plenty of groups who struggle to keep their members’ contact details together or monitor their work. Or those who need to tell people about their difference their work makes. You and I can think of bags of ways to use digital/ICT to help do this.

    Your experience at the Cambridge social media surgeries (I do that too in Newcastle, it’s fab, isn’t it?!), will tell you that people ask all sorts of things but don’t always say “I want to learn [insert digital skill here]” or they do but it isn’t what will give them a solution to their problem. The words we all use are important and I think it will be really useful for you to help develop your ideas to spend time with your target audience to listen to the words they use, what they ask for help with…your offer needs to press all their buttons and not be frightening. I think there’s a bit of a danger in your offer being a ‘doing things to people’ because Puffles thinks is good for them not with them helping to solve problems that are real to them. And ask questions to work out what their digital problems really are. There will be many whose biggest digital problem is not having a computer or the one they used to use was in the library that is now shut. There will probably be groups in and around Cambridge that have an under-used ICT suite or a spare desk or two that you could probably borrow. And you could speak to the CVS in Cambridge about what would work for their members.

    I’m a little worried about offering a big programme of digital skills because another major problem I see in the people I work with is a total lack of time and total exhaustion and burn out to take on anything that doesn’t very obviously help them in their work. The people and groups I’m working with are really frightened for their beneficiaries/users as ‘austerity’, cuts, benefit horrors, kick in. They’re worried about people not having enough to eat, choosing to heat their house or buy new shoes for their kids, deciding who in a big queue of people gets the last food bank voucher.

    I like the social media surgery approach to learning – one on one, responding to a person’s need, learning in a safe, non-‘learning’ setting (ie a cafe) – but it is unbelievably time consuming. Could you apply these principles to a small group where people could get their needs met within a framework of skills, develop trust with each, develop friendship/working relationship/social capital with each other to benefit each other out of the ‘classroom’? Is this like an action learning set? This is probably the approach I’d try to take but it won’t be easy. You could set a few off at a time but you’d need to understand your capacity for supporting the learning groups as it will probably be tiring (as an introvert I’d find it tiring!). You could probably give additional ongoing support online/texting/Skype over the period of the group and encourage learning group members to help each other too. I don’t where the money comes for this – grants, corporate sponsorship, crowdfunding, people paying for themselves, nothing…the money is always the stumbling block.

    I think it’s a really cool idea so I hope I haven’t been too critical. If you think I can help or want to ask me anything else about what I’ve written here, let me know.

    Good luck with it all and I hope you have a great 2014!

  4. (By way of background, I work for Cambridge Online, a volunteer based educational charity based in Cambridge. We provide people with access to computers and the internet, as well as training and advice on using them. We welcome anybody who will benefit from our service, including disabled and disadvantaged people.)

    This welcome and thought provoking post raises many points, and it’s hard to know how to pitch a reply, so I have made myself focus on just two aspects:

    Learning Tools and Style: As part of the UK online centres / Tinder Foundation network , we use Learn My Way with our learners. It is an incredible resource which all but a few people thrive with. I particularly like the Menu idea where people can choose to do the bits they want to do, and can jump in at whichever level suits them – whether that’s mouse basics, universal job match, socialising online, internet safety, creating documents, or whatever. Have a look for yourself. If you do a course, please put us down as the centre code (467). Having exhausted Learn My Way courses, there’s signposting to further learning. Now, although Learn My Way is great (and a massive improvement on previous incarnations), imagine going through the online registration process and starting the mouse basics course if you have never used a mouse or keyboard before – it can’t be done. Imagine if you don’t like learning while sitting at home on your own (like a dragon’s best friend). Imagine you are living with a disability and need special adaptations to access a computer. That’s just three examples, but there are lots of reasons why Learn My Way is just a tool, and what’s critical is the personal learning support. That’s what we try to get right. We don’t have a prescribed way of working – we talk to people about what they want to learn and how they want to go about it. Most people initially opt for one to one, moving onto working independently with help in the background, and sometimes doing later courses at home. We try to make the learning room welcoming, warm, friendly, informal, and tea & coffee friendly (only two spillages in ten years – and one of them was me!).

    Sustainable Funding. I write this as my charity faces a £10k shortfall this financial year (our running costs are only £60k pa). We have moved from a position of almost 100% grant funding five years ago to just below 30% this year. Following a major business appeal a couple of years ago, we gained support from just two locally based big IT businesses. We have been rejected by almost every trust fund we have applied to in the last twelve months. As your post suggests, we have people wanting what we offer – with few of them able to pay anything – but our model cannot be sustained as it is.

    So, having made those points and hopefully contributed to the opening debate, yes, Cambridge Online and I would like to be involved in future discussions.

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